EEL project

The EEL project, which stands for «Energetics, Education, and cultural Legacy of the American Eel in the St. Lawrence river», is an interdisciplinary study in biology and social science. The project’s objectives are threefold. First, this study aims at a better understanding of the American eel’s biology and eco-physiology through the study of otoliths. The second objective is to shed light on the multiple ways eels have influenced culture in the province of Quebec, Canada. The last objective of this study is to develop communication strategies with the population of Quebec in order to raise awareness about the American eel’s conservation status.

 
Tell us your story

As part of the EEL project, the research team invites the Quebec population to share their experiences with the American eel. The project team is interested in various types of information. Do you have any historical anecdotes about eel fishing or consumption? Were there eel fisheries in your area that may have disappeared today? How do you prepare eels when you eat them, and in what context? Do you know of any stories, songs, tales or legends about eels? Have you caught an eel while fishing? If so, do not hesitate to send us pictures, ideally specifying the method and the place where it was caught. This information will help our research team to better understand the overall relationship between the Quebec population and the American eel.

Merci pour votre envoi !

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Research team

 

David Deslauriers. Principal investigator. Institut des sciences de la mer, Université du Québec à Rimouski.

Pierre Blier. Professor. Deparment of biology, chemistry and geography ,Université du Québec à Rimouski.

Pascal Sirois. Professor. Department of elemental sciences, Université du Québec à Chicoutimi.

Dominique Robert. Professor. Institut des sciences de la mer, Université du Québec à Rimouski

Louis-Etienne Pigeon. Lecturer. Philosophy, Université Laval.

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Jimmy Voisine. Post doctoral researcher, Université Laval.

Santiago Jarquin-Corro. MSc Student in Oceanography. Université du Québec à Rimouski.

Carole Govin. BSc student in Biology. Université du Québec à Rimouski.

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The American eel

 

The American eel (Anguilla rostrata, Le Sueur 1821) is a migratory fish species living in freshwater lakes, streams and estuary of the eastern seaboard of the Americas, from Venezuela to Greenland. American eels are catadromous fishes most of the time (from the Greek «cata», meaning «downward», and «dromos», «alleyway»), which means they spawn in the open sea, live most of their life in freshwater habitat, and return to the open sea to lay their eggs at the end of their life (although some never seem to enter freshwater streams), thus completing one of the most impressive migration of the animal kingdom. Eels are also semelparous fishes, meaning they reproduce only once during their entire lifetime. American eels' spawning grounds are in the Sargasso Sea, roughly to the north-east of the Greater Antilles (Moyle & Cech Jr., 2004).

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Eel life cycle

 
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Egg

The eel goes through many forms throughout its life. For a long time, scientists have thought these different forms represented different species. Some aspects of the eel's life cycle are still a scientific mystery up to this day. Even the location of the eel's spawning grounds was unknown until the early 20th century. Indeed, Danish biologist Johannes Schmidt succeeded in locating the eel's spawning grounds through the monitoring of larval eel catches. It was assumed that the smallest ones recorded were younger and closer to the actual spawning ground. In this way, he identified an area in the Atlantic Ocean, roughly corresponding to the Sargasso Sea, where the smallest larvae were consistently caught. Nevertheless, the beginning of an eel life is still shrouded in mystery. As a matter of fact, scientists never witnessed directly the hatching of eel eggs in the Sargasso Sea (Tesch, 2003). Eggs hatch about one week after spawning occured between February and April each year (McLeave et al., 1987).

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Leptocephalus

A larval eel is called a “leptocephalus” (from the Greek «leptos», narrow, and «kephale», head). They are laurel leaf-shaped, around 50 mm long, flat and transparent and have very simple body parts. This phase lasts between 7 and 12 months while they are carried by ocean currents (such as the Gulf Stream) towards the coast (Tesch, 2003).

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Elver

A larval eel is called a “leptocephalus” (from the Greek «leptos», narrow, and «kephale», head). They are laurel leaf-shaped, around 50 mm long, flat and transparent and have very simple body parts. This phase lasts between 7 and 12 months while they are carried by ocean currents (such as the Gulf Stream) towards the coast (Tesch, 2003).

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Glass eel

A larval eel is called a “leptocephalus” (from the Greek «leptos», narrow, and «kephale», head). They are laurel leaf-shaped, around 50 mm long, flat and transparent and have very simple body parts. This phase lasts between 7 and 12 months while they are carried by ocean currents (such as the Gulf Stream) towards the coast (Tesch, 2003).

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Yellow eel

A larval eel is called a “leptocephalus” (from the Greek «leptos», narrow, and «kephale», head). They are laurel leaf-shaped, around 50 mm long, flat and transparent and have very simple body parts. This phase lasts between 7 and 12 months while they are carried by ocean currents (such as the Gulf Stream) towards the coast (Tesch, 2003).

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Silver eel 

When it is time to migrate and spawn, the eel undergoes several morphological changes. The eel’s back turns grey and its belly white. Larger fins and sensitive eyes appear to help navigate the deep ocean. Migrating silver eels stop eating, and their digestive tracts gets atrophied. An average female from the St. Lawrence River system can produce between 6.5 and 14.5 million eggs, and both males and females die after spawning (Tremblay, 2009).

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Otolith chemistry

 

Eels occupy many different ecosystems during their lifetime. While growing and migrating, eels feed on different species depending on their size and experience different temperature and salinity environments. Eels, as many fishes, have a tiny structure named otolith (from the greek «oto», ear, and «lithos», rock ) in its inner ear made of calcium carbonate (the same compound as eggshells), which accumulate growth rings throughout their life. A transverse cutting of the otolith reveals the growth rings, just like those of trees, which can be used to age the eels. The environment in which the eel lives influences the chemical composition of the otolith. This can then be used to gather information on the life history of the eel, such as the different habitats it went through while migrating (Jessop et al., 2002).

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History

 
First Nations and eel

The First Nations of the Americas have interacted with eels for millennia. Archaeological evidence shows that American eels have been exploited intermittently for more than 5,000 years in the St. Lawrence River watershed (Junker-Andersen, 1988). Eels were a staple during winter for many communities in northern latitudes. Eels have a lot of stored fat, which supplied an important source of energy in the coldest months of the year. Moreover, eels were extremely abundant and relatively easy to catch during the fall migration. Storage was easy when the eel was smoked. The eel was more than just a food item for many communities. For the Abishnabe and the Mi'kmaq people for example, eels have an important symbolic and cultural value (see for example Algonquins of Ontario, 2012).

Eel fishing in colonial times

When they first arrived in North America, European settlers faced significant hardship. The aboriginal traditional knowledge shared with the early settlers enabled the latter to survive the first few years. First Nation communities along the St. Lawrence River taught European settlers how to catch eels, so they profited from its abundance and nutritional quality as well while European colonies in the New World were in their infancy (Martin, 1980).

Commercial fishing in the 19th and 20th century

While European colonies in the New World developed, the focus increasingly turned to agriculture for food production. Nevertheless, eel fishing continued in the St. Lawrence River valley. European farmers along the St. Lawrence River installed fishing weirs. Eel thus progressively became more of a complementary food item than the staple it once was. Later still, eel became another commodity farmers could exploit and trade to bring extra revenue. A local and regional trade network developed. Eels caught in the St. Lawrence River were sold as far as Europe (Martin, 1980).

Population crash

In the St. Lawrence River system, the conservation status of the American eel can be assessed through the counting of eels during the upward migration. For the last five years, the numbers of young eels passing through fish ladders each year at the Moses-Saunders dam represent only around 1.5% of the migrating population each year during the 1975-1985 time period. The decline of the American eel can be linked to multiple causes, including the damming of rivers for hydropower production. Dams hinder the upstream migration of the eel and causes an important mortality (± 40%) when eels pass through dam turbines while migrating downstream. American eels are also facing other conservation issues, such as commercial fishing (including for glass eels), the chemical pollution of waterways, invasive parasites, diseases, and habitat modifications brought about by climate change (MFFP, 2019).

Eel fishing today

During most of the 20th century, eel fisheries in Quebec accounted for most of the eel caught in Canada, with a mean production of 442 tons per year. However, since the early 1990s, catches have fallen dramatically. Actions have thus been taken since then in order to lessen anthropogenic impacts on the species. A program was initiated by the government of Quebec and Hydro-Quebec to buy back fishing permits in order to decrease fishing pressure. In the St. Lawrence estuary, exploitation has fallen by half. In the Lake St. Pierre, catches fell between 14% and 37%, and to 5% at most in the area between the Laviolette bridge (at Trois-Rivières) and the île d’Orléans (near Quebec city). There is no more fishing upstream of Lake St. Pierre, except in the Lake St. François, where some catches are still reported. Since 2014, around 40 ton of eels are fished per year in the St. Lawrence River system.

 
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Cultural signification

First Nation myths and legends

Eel migration was fascinating to aboriginal peoples. It was a species found everywhere along the St. Lawrence River system, from lakes and stream far upriver to the brackish habitats at its mouth. In the cosmology of First Nations, eels were thought of as the ones responsible for the flowing of water through the entire habitat. Eels were thought of as manifestations of the cycles of nature, and as such, were at the forefront of many myths and legends (Mainland Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq, 2011).

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Fishing gear and techniques

There are numerous ways to fish for eels. The most common for the populations of European ancestry in Quebec involved catching eels as silver eels along their migration route, when it heads back to the Sargasso Sea to spawn. «Fascines», or fishing weirs were installed along the banks of streams. The whole installation was V-shaped so as to use winds, currents, and the natural behavior of eels to funnel them in a sort of chest where they were gathered at low tide. This device works similarly to a fyke net (Martin, 1980). Fyke nets are also used for eel fishing in the Lake St. Pierre, at Gentilly and in the Magdalen Islands.

Cuisine

As a food item, eel can be prepared in many ways. Smoking eels has been a traditional way of storage, and it still is one of the main ways it is consumed today. Eels can also be poached, fried, grilled, or made into pâté.  As eel is an important food item in the Japanese culinary tradition, it can be found in sushi in many Japanese restaurants around the province of Quebec (Miller & Casselman, in Tsukamoto et al., 2014).

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Folklore

The population of Quebec inherited aboriginal practices in many ways. For example, eel skin was used in making bandages, for the skin tightened when it dried. Eel skin also made a robust leather, which was used to make snowshoes. Eel, as a symbol, appeared in songs and folk tales. Popular expressions developed around its cryptic behavior and the fact that it is a very slimy and slippery fish. In French, «il y a anguille sous roche» (meaning «there is an eel under the rock») is equivalent to «there is something fishy» (Martin, 1980; see also Douville, 2017).

 
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Trade

Eels have been traded since pre-Columbian times. Today, most of the demand comes from Asian markets. Japan alone imports around 70% of eels fished or produced (in aquaculture) worldwide. This huge demand has led to an important decline in the wild population of at least three species of eels (A. japonica, A. anguilla, and A. rostrata). To counter this decline in the wild, eel aquaculture has been developed. But as the eel's entire life cycle has not been mastered, eel aquaculture is still dependent on wild larvae catches, which contributes to the global decline in eel populations (Kuroki et al., in Tsukamoto et al., 2014).

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Conservation

 

Since the early 1990s, there has been a huge drop in eel populations in the St. Lawrence River system. Only around 10% of the original population remains. There are several reasons for this. First and foremost, hydro-power dams impede migration. Fish ladders are efficient for the upstream migration, but not for the downstream one. Very high morality (at least between 18% and 27% per dam) is reported during this migration, because eels are killed by the rotating blades of turbines (Casselman, in Aida et al., 2003). There is also an important economic demand coming from Asian markets for eels in larval form, which are used in aquaculture and can fetch astronomic prices. Glass eel are harvested in several places in North American and the Caribbean (Shiraishi & Crook, 2015). In addition to the eel fishing buyback program, other actions have been used in the past or are used currently to enhance eel conservation. For example, 6.8 million glass eels caught in the Maritimes provinces of Canada were released upstream in the St. Lawrence River and in the Richelieu River from 2005 to 2010. Estimates from commercial catches shows that eels from such release programs now represent around a third of all silver eel catches in the St. Lawrence River. There is also a number of research projects aimed at finding a long term solution to the mortality associated with dams during downstream migration. The province of Ontario has also initiated a catch-and-release program where maturing eels are caught upriver from the Moses-Saunders and Beauharnois dams and released downriver from those dams, in order to avoid a cumulative mortality of around 40% of the migrating population linked to those dams. Finally, a number of initiatives are using fish ladders to recreate a migration pathway for the eel.

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Partners

 
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Bibliography

Algonquins of Ontario (2012) Returning Kichisippi Pimisi - the American eel - to the Ottawa River basin, Pembroke ON: Algonquins of Ontario Consultation Office.

Comité scientifique sur l’anguille d’Amérique, 2019. État de situation de l’anguille d’Amérique (Anguilla rostrata) au Québec, Ministère des Forêts, de la Faune et des Parcs du Québec (MFFP).

Douville, Judith (2017) La pêche à l'anguille sur la Côte-du-Sud, Rabaska, vol. 15: 43-64.

Jessop, B. M., J.-C. Shiao, Y. Iizuka, W.-N. Tzeng (2002) Migratory behavior and habitat use by American eel Anguilla rostrata as revealed by otolith microchemistry, Marine Ecology Progress Serie, vol. 233: 217-229.

Junker-Andersen, C. (1988) The eel fisheries of the St. Lawrence Iroquoians, North American Archeologist, vol. 9, 2: 97-121.

​Kuroki, Mari, Martin J.P. van Oijen, Katsumi Tsukamoto (2014) Eels and the Japanese: an inseparable, long-standing relationship, in Katsumi Tsukamoto, Mari Kuroki (eds) Eels and humans, Tokyo: Springer.

Mainland Nova Scotia Mi'kmaq (2011) Mi'kmaq and the American eel: traditional knowledge relating to the American eel, Shubenacadie NS: Mi'kma'ki All Points Services.

Martin, Roger (1980) L'anguille, Ottawa: Léméac.

McCleave, J.D., R.C. Kleckner et M. Castonguay. 1987. Reproductive sympatry of American and European Eels and implications for migration and taxonomy, pages 286-297 in M.J. Dadswell, R.L. Klauda, C.M. Moffitt, R.L. Saunders, R.A. Rulifson et J.E. Cooper (eds), Common strategies of anadromous and catadromous fishes, American Fisheries Society Symposium 1, Maryland.

Miller, Michael J., John M. Casselman (2014) The American eel: a fish of mystery and sustenance for humans, in Katsumi Tsukamoto, Mari Kuroki (eds) Eels and humans, Tokyo: Springer.

Moyle, Peter B., Joseph C. Cech. Jr. (2004) Fishes: an introduction to ichthyology, San Francisco: Benjamin Cummings.

Oliveira, K., et J.D. McCleave. 2000. Variation in population and life history traits of the American Eel, Anguilla rostrata, in four rivers in Maine, Environmental Biology of Fishes 59(2):141-151.

Shiraishi, H., V. Crook (2015) Eel market dynamics: an analysis of Anguilla production, trade and consumption in East Asia, Tokyo: TRAFFIC.

Tabeta, Osame, Noritaka Mochioka (2003) The glass eel, in K. Aida, K. Tsukamoto, K. Yamauchi (eds) Eel biology, Tokyo, Springer.

Tesch, Friedrich-Wilhelm (2003) The eel, Oxford UK: Blackwell Publishing.

Tremblay, Valérie (2009) Reproductive strategy of Female American Eels Among Five Subpopulations in the St. Lawrence River Watershed, American Fisheries Society Symposium, vol. 58: 85-102.